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Composed: 1908

Orchestration: piccolo, 3 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 8 horns, 5 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, church bell, cymbals, orchestra bells, tam-tam, triangle), 2 harps, celesta, organ, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 6, 1925, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting

About this Piece

The fascination with Moscow-born Alexander Scriabin at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century stems less from his early, great success as a pianist, mainly playing his own Chopin-influenced short pieces with Chopinesque names—prelude, etude, nocturne, etc.—attractive as that music may be. He became notorious as purveyor of the “mystical” creations of the final decade of his short life: his last piano sonatas and two orchestral works, the Poem of Ecstasy heard on the present program and the subsequent Prometheus, Poem of Fire.

The Poem of Ecstasy was written in a villa near Genoa where the composer was hiding out from a censorious Russian society with Tatiana Schlozer, for whom he was in the process of leaving his wife. Scriabin’s self-exile coincided with an invitation to come to New York to present a series of recitals and to perform his early Piano Concerto with the New York Philharmonic. However, the orchestra’s conductor, Vassily Safonov, a friend of the abandoned Mrs. Scriabin, would not countenance Scriabin’s presence, or his music. He refused to conduct the concerto and what would have been the world premiere of the recently completed Poem of Ecstasy.

With warnings from an old friend, the conductor Modest Altschuler, that serious problems lay ahead—the Russian writer Maxim Gorky and a woman not his wife recently had been run out of New York for similar “moral offenses”—Scriabin and Tatiana returned to Europe. The Poem finally made it to New York two years later, when it was presented by Altschuler and the Russian Symphony Orchestra of New York. The reviews were scathing.

A program note for a concert of Scriabin’s music, given in Moscow in March of 1909, offers a view of the piece that is probably Scriabin’s own (we can’t blame anyone else)—and a small taste of what “theosophy” is about: “Poem of Ecstasy is the joy of liberated action. The Cosmos, i.e., Spirit, is eternal Creation without External Motivation, a Divine Play with Worlds. […] When the Spirit has attained the supreme culmination of its activity and has been torn away from the embraces of teleology and relativity, when it has exhausted completely its substance and its liberated active energy, the Time of Ecstasy shall then arrive.”

To go much further in describing this gloriously over-the-top, swooning piece of musical mysticism would be to bring it down to earth, the last thing its composer would have wanted. —Herbert Glass